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Women's Soccer League Folds After 3 Seasons

Strapped for sponsors, pro teams disband five days before the start of Women's World Cup.

September 16, 2003|Jim Barrero and David Wharton | Times Staff Writers

Women striving for a level playing field on the American sports scene were dealt a setback Monday when the Women's United Soccer Assn. -- one of two major professional team leagues for women in the U.S. -- halted play for want of sponsorship dollars.

The announcement, which came only five days before the world's best players gather in the U.S. for the 2003 Women's World Cup, leaves the Women's National Basketball Assn. alone among female pro team leagues.

The announcement caused one sports industry expert to say that although U.S. fans will rally behind female athletes at events such as the Olympic Games, the culture is not ready to support women's team leagues with the same fervor it devotes to men's leagues.

"I just don't think the marketplace has shown a resounding acceptance," said Paul Swangard, managing director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon.

"No one wants to be in the business of loss-leadering a women's sports league for altruistic reasons," he said. "It may be the right thing to do, but that's not the private sector's job."

David Carter, a principal of the Sports Business Group in Los Angeles, saw it another way: "I think it has less to do with the fact that it was women's soccer and more to do with the fact that all these secondary leagues are battling for their lives."

The WUSA was founded in the heady days after the 1999 Women's World Cup tournament, which ended with a memorable U.S. victory, Brandi Chastain ripping off her jersey after scoring the winning goal at the Rose Bowl.

League owners poured more than $100 million into their fledgling venture but, after three seasons, could not find enough sponsors.

"I was intoxicated by what I witnessed in 1999 with the corporate sponsorship," WUSA Chairman John Hendricks said. "I mistakenly assumed it would overflow onto the league."

The WUSA's announcement is a blow to young female players who had spent the last few years dreaming of one day playing at the professional level in the U.S. The only remaining opportunities for women to play soccer after college -- other than with the national team -- are overseas in places such as Japan.

"When you have this outlet and this platform to see these women play at the highest level, it's great for these young girls to have those role models to look to," said Dan Calichman, a former Los Angeles Galaxy player who is the technical director and coach of Crown City United, a San Marino-based youth soccer club. "Without a league, these girls aren't going to have that same recognition that they were accustomed to. That's the sad part."

Interest in soccer at the youth level seems to peak every year. The American Youth Soccer Organization has an estimated 650,000 participants ages 4 1/2-19 -- making it one of the nation's largest youth sports associations.

"Having this league here is a dream come true and I just feel bad for all the little girls who had a great dream of playing in the WUSA," said Shannon Boxx, a U.S. national team member who is among several players who revived their careers playing in the league.

Leaders of other struggling leagues reacted to the news with sadness but emphasized the positives of their endeavors.

"The [WUSA] folding was a very unfortunate setback and we hope they will be back," WNBA President Val Ackerman said. "Clearly, starting and operating a league is very challenging.

"We feel we have all the ingredients: an exciting sport, the synergy of women's college basketball, and the NBA support is all part of the equation.

"We remain very confident about the future of women's team sports."

Don Garber, commissioner of Major League Soccer, the men's pro league, said the MLS will continue to expand "our footprint across the United States."

"Although we are disappointed by today's action, we believe this decision has no impact on the future viability of the sport of soccer in the United States," Garber said.

Garber's assertion is one with which former professional player and soccer Hall of Famer Rick Davis disagreed.

"I think [the WUSA folding] has a huge impact," said Davis, who is the director of player programs for AYSO. "Part of the excitement and the lure for kids is to be able to follow and idolize an athlete. With that now gone, clearly the focus changes."

Kerry McGrath Crooks, the coach at Vanguard University in Costa Mesa and Huntington Beach Edison High School, was disappointed by the timing of the announcement.

"I can't believe they did this right before the World Cup. The timing is just a huge slap in the face," she said. "You wonder if they're going to try to drum it up somehow."

That would be OK with Julie Foudy, a four-time member of the U.S. World Cup team who starred for WUSA's San Diego franchise.

"I think there is a great sense among this team that we've got 30 days of great visibility and tremendous fan support," said Foudy, who was also a member of the league's board of governors. "For us, this is more than about soccer ... reviving the league will be a top priority for us."

Because the league isn't officially dissolving until next spring, Hendricks said there still is "a glimmer of hope" for the league to reemerge in 2005.

*

Times staff writers Grahame L. Jones, Lauren Peterson and Mike Terry contributed to this report.

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